Ridgefield Allies inspire racial equality and justice
Growing up on the south side of segregated Chicago in the 1940s and 50s, Arthur Miller and his family were part of an insular African-American community. He was born in a hospital with black physicians and black nurses. His friends were black. His dad worked for a black milk company. The insurance agents, attorneys, and ice-cream salesmen were black.
But in the summer of 1955, another young black child from Chicago on vacation with his family in Mississippi was accused of interacting with a 21-year-old white woman. A few nights later, the woman’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped and beat 14-year-old Emmett Till before shooting him in the head and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.
“At age 10 was when I was taught what I meant to be black,” Arthur Miller said. “He (Emmett Till) sat next to one of my brothers [in school].”
Miller, a former marketing executive who is now a Catholic deacon living in Windsor, was one of seven speakers participating in a virtual rally entitled What Can I Do? What Can We Do? that live-streamed Sunday afternoon on the Ridgefield Allies’ Facebook and YouTube pages. Ridgefield Allies is a nascent organization that has formed in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the subsequent nationwide protests it has sparked.
“Our overall objective is to inspire, motivate and provide tools for people to self-educate,” said Alex Harris, a Ridgefield resident who is one of Ridgefield Allies’ founding members. “We want to help people who want to do something to move toward the goal of racial equality and justice.”
As of Monday afternoon, the group had about 20 members and a mailing list of more than 60 residents, according to Harris.
“This thing is growing rapidly,” Harris said. “We only had our first [organizational] call on June 1.”
“Initially, our intent was simply to create the infrastructure necessary to facilitate the production of a virtual rally,” said Ridgefielder Mark Robinson — the 2009 recipient of the state’s Martin Luther King Leadership Award — in his introductory remarks for Sunday’s event. “But in coming together, Ridgefield Allies acknowledges there is so much more work to be done that we have an obligation to be part of that work.”
“We set ourselves three basic objectives for this rally today,” said Robinson, the chief organizer of Ridgefield’s annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. “To express solidarity with communities of color regarding the issues of systemic racism and police treatment of people of color; to recognize and embrace our responsibilities, individually and collectively, as humans, as citizens, and as people of privilege; and to identify resources and methods that we, individually and collectively, can employ to do more to have a positive impact on these issues.”
In addition to Miller, Sunday’s speakers were Susie Da Silva (Ridgefield’s Superintendent of Schools); Jennifer DeJulio (a social studies teacher at Ridgefield High); Niro Feliciano (a cognitive psychotherapist); Mia Walker (a content creator and director for theater, television and film); Will Haskell (a state senator whose district includes Ridgefield); and Da’Misi Adetona (a 2016 Ridgefield High School graduate and alumna of Ridgefield’s A Better Chance program).
“Our country was birthed with the understanding that freedom applies to some, but not to all,” DeJulio said during her talk, which gave an overview of racism in America by connecting events throughout the country’s history. “Right now, we are seeing democracy in action. People are actively exercising their first amendment rights. Will this be the final momentous event in the struggle for equality in the United States? Will we finally have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all?”
Feliciano, a mother of four bi-racial children, shared personal experiences from her 11 years living in Ridgefield, including one that happened three years ago at a community pool when her son was attempting to play with three white boys who were shooting water guns.
“They looked at my son and said, “no, you can’t play this game. This is for white kids,’ ” Feliciano said.
“We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Feliciano added. “If you think about it, where did those kids learn that? It came from somewhere. I’m not saying that it came from their homes or from their parents, but it came from somewhere because it exists.”
Haskell, a Democrat who was elected to the state senate in 2018, vowed to be more proactive in fighting for legislation aimed at helping black Americans and other people of color.
“There are two bills that I was a co-sponsor of last year, but my commitment today ... I’m going to work harder to get them across the finish line because I didn’t prioritize them enough,” Haskelll said, referring to one bill that would automatically expunge misdemeanor criminal records in three years and some felonies in five years, and another that would allow for open-file disclosure in criminal cases.
Miller, who was first arrested for protesting in 1963 and marched with Martin Luther King three years later, said he was encouraged by the sight of so many younger white people protesting in response to George Floyd’s death.
“George Floyd was not killed because he was black. He was murdered because there have been people who were silent ... who perpetuated and encouraged the killing of that man,” Miller said. “He was not murdered because he was black; he was murdered because they were filled with hate. And it is that hate that has to be changed. That’s why white people are marching. That’s why people are standing up and saying we can not allow hatred to begin to destroy everything.”
Miller went on to talk about his older brother.
“The brother that sat next to Emmett Till was asked by Emmett if he wanted to go to Mississippi with Emmett at the time and my mother and father said no ... luckily,” Miller said. “Well my brother went on to be a West Point graduate, Vietnam vet ... he won the bronze medal for valor ... he received his PhD in engineering. He was the lead scientist at Los Alamos, New Mexico; he had 2,000 PhD scientists that reported to him. He then went on to be assistant secretary of energy under Obama.
“Here’s the part that’s remarkable and ironic,” Miller continued. “He said that Emmett Till was smarter than he was.
“Hatred killed all possibilities, and it always does,” Miller said. “That’s what we must save.”